BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — Michigan television viewers have been subjected to more than $52 million worth of political advertising, and a good chunk — $7.1 million worth — has aired in the Traverse City region.
And there's still three weeks to go before Election Day.
Special interests what have pushed the state's ballot proposals comprised the bulk of television advertising buys with $30 million as of Oct. 8, said Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
The Traverse City market has seen heavy spending for political advertisements, thanks in large part to redrawn congressional maps that moved the area into the 1st Congressional District. Polls suggest a toss-up race between Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek and Democratic challenger Gary McDowell.
McDowell and the Democratic Congressional Committee purchased $842,840 in TV ads, compared to $992,795 for Benishek and the Republican National Congressional Committee.
"In our market the spending has been unprecedented," said Karl Brockmiller, national sales manager for WWTV and WFQX, the CBS and FOX networks affiliates in Cadillac. "It hasn't come from presidential candidates; it's coming primarily from the ballot proposals and the Benishek and McDowell race."
Robinson labeled as "conservative" his spending estimates for Benishek and McDowell, and the numbers don't include buys by independent groups or political parties that may be involved in more than one campaign.
Final numbers won't be known until after the campaign, but Robinson expects 2012 to mirror the 2010 match-up when the same two candidates spent $2.1 million, while independent groups ponied up $4.8 million.
"With any federal candidate there is going to be multiple buckets of money," Brockmiller said. "When you look at a race, it's not so much what the candidates are spending but what the parties are spending."
Robinson questions if the onslaught of campaign ads this season has diminished their impact. He noted that $12.9 million spent on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney through Oct. 2 failed to help the Republican gain ground on President Barack Obama.
"They threw everything and the kitchen sink at Obama and didn't move the polls one bit," Robinson said.
Traverse City resident Joe Moses said he might pay attention to TV ads if they offered something constructive.
"Most of them are just about trashing the other guy," Moses said. "It's just noise now. The debates are more meaningful."
Polls showed Romney gained ground in Michigan after the first presidential debate. That shift meant more customers for broadcasters.
Political advertisers buy ad slots just one to two weeks before their commercials air, Brockmiller said. Advertisers watch poll numbers to decide whether they should pull out if one candidate slips, or buy additional ads if the race draws close.
"We just started today to see presidential orders come in with the polls tightening up," Brockmiller said. "As polling goes, the spending goes."
Television stations have a finite amount of ad space and competition among political buyers this year created an "auction type of atmosphere," Brockmiller said.
Issue advertisers have offered twice the going rate for a spot, which makes it hard on local advertisers for the seven to eight weeks before the election.
The crush this year has left no part of the day immune from price increases.
An advertising spot for the daytime soap "The Bold and the Beautiful" that used to sell for $75 now goes for $800.
Political revenue helps keep ad rates down the rest of the year and provides stations enough capital to make improvements and give raises, Brockmiller said.
"The last few years have not been kind to our business," Brockmiller said. "To a lot of stations, this was really needed."